Christmas TV isn’t all about repeats this year (starting with Doctor Who)
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What to watch on TV this Christmas

Children get the best TV this year, says Rachel Cooke.

The annual story about Christmas repeats so beloved of our tabloid press came with an extra twist this year when Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, “fought back” on Twitter, accusing the journalists who trot out this line about laziness. “BBC schedules full of amazing shows this Christmas,” he wrote, before having a good go at the Mirror, which had insisted that 63 per cent of the BBC’s festive output this year would consist of repeats. Crikey, I thought, as I followed all this. Cohen is right to defend the BBC. If he won’t, why should anyone else? But I felt the fear, too. No one loves the “TV’s Christmas reheats” story the way the Daily Mail does. His wife might like to consider giving him a hard hat and a flak jacket this holiday season.

Still, Cohen can take heart from being (more or less) right. Naturally, ITV has asked Julian Fellowes to dial in a Downton Abbey special, and he has obliged with an episode in which Lord Sinderby invites his new daughter-in-law, Rose, and her awful relatives up to Northumberland to shoot Lord Grantham . . . sorry, I mean grouse (Christmas Day, 9pm). But this, alas, is pretty much it from ITV when it comes to delivering the sorts of shows – comforting and more than a little camp – in front of which Britain’s middle classes are apt to flop with their Crabbie’s ginger wine and chocolate brazils. By contrast, BBC1 not only has Doctor Who (Christmas Day, 6.15pm) and Call the Midwife (Christmas Day, 7.50pm), but the return of Sally Wainwright’s brilliant Last Tango in Halifax (28 December, 9pm) as well as Mapp and Lucia, an adaptation by Steve Pemberton of E F Benson’s divinely funny novels (about two competitively snobbish spinsters in 1930s Rye), starring Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson and the biggest set of dentures since Dick Emery’s vicar (29 December, 9.05pm). Of course, I accept that you may not be in a camp mood. Sloe gin and too many Quality Street may simply have increased your misanthropy exponentially – in which case, tune in to Wallander (BBC4, Boxing Day, 9pm), the very first Swedish version of Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel. This is its British premiere.

For children, there comes an embarrassment of riches in the form of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, Charlie Higson’s adaptation of Norman Hunter’s much-loved book (BBC1, Christmas Eve, 8.30pm; Harry Hill stars); The Boy in the Dress, an adaptation of David Walliams’s adorable novel (BBC1, Boxing Day, 6.55pm); and Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (BBC1, New Year’s Day, 6.30pm), in which Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman bring Quentin Blake’s illustrations to life.

Ditto for culture vultures: on Christmas Day BBC4 will screen the Royal Ballet’s Winter’s Tale (7pm) and on 20 December Jeremy Paxman plays Santa (or something) in Christmas University Challenge (BBC2, 8.35pm; the novelist Jonathan Coe is among those taking part). Less highbrow, but twice the fun – like Michael Frayn gone wrong – will be Panto! Mayhem, Make-up and Magic (BBC4, 22 December, 9.25pm), in which a documentary team goes backstage at the Nottingham Arts Theatre as it attempts to stage a Christmas show on a budget of £600. That Day We Sang (BBC2, Boxing Day, 9pm) is Victoria Wood’s TV version of her own musical. Set in Manchester in 1929 and 1969, it tells the story of middle-aged Enid and Tubby as they attend a reunion of the choir in which they sang as children. Imelda Staunton plays Enid and Michael Ball is Tubby, which will be recommendation enough for anyone who saw them in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. On the subject of singing, I also commend The Kid in the Middle, a documentary about Sammy Davis Jr (BBC4, 21 December, 9pm).

Finally: comedy, which has a distinctly valedictory air this year. Man Down, Greg Davies’s batty sitcom about a disaster-prone teacher called Dan, will struggle on without Rik Mayall (who played Dan’s father) in a one-off seasonal special on 23 December (Channel 4, 10pm), and Miranda Hart will say goodbye to the character that made her a household name on BBC1 on Christmas Day (7.15pm) and New Year’s Day (8pm). James Corden’s caper The Wrong Mans, which styles itself as a comedy-drama but seems mostly to want to make us smile, returns to BBC2 on 22 December (9pm), and I don’t expect we’ll see it again for some time, if ever, given that its star is off to host a network chat show in the US.

Toodle-pip, then, to all three. Or, as Mapp and Lucia would have it: au reservoir for now. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder